A born champion - Josh Gifford
16:52 05 January 2010
It is horse racing's great fairy tale, a story so heart-wrenchingly moving it's hard to believe it was true, indeed a story that spawned a movie - 1984's 'Champions', starring John Hurt and Edward Woodward.
In 1979, Bob Champion was one of the country's top jump jockeys, but his world crashed down around him when he was diagnosed with cancer. His favourite horse was Aldaniti, with whom he came third in 1977's Hennessy Gold Cup, but Aldaniti was plagued by injuries and around the same time that Champion was told he had six months to live, the horse pulled up at Sandown with yet more crippling tendon problems.
It wasn't the first time vets had suggested putting the 'stag kneed' horse down, but Champion said that the only thing keeping him going during his chemotherapy was the thought that one day he would win the Grand National with Aldaniti. So, with the backing of owner Nick Embiricos, the horse's trainer Josh Gifford and groom Beryl Millam he set about trying to achieve the seemingly impossible - bringing Aldaniti back to fitness, just in case Bob Champion could beat the cancer that was set to claim his life.
Two years later, at 1981's Grand National, the impossible dream came true. Champion had survived. Aldaniti, too, had been carefully nursed back from injuries that should have meant his end. They rode out at Aintree and together they won the world's most gruelling steeple-chase by four lengths in one of sports greatest moments. The victorious horse and rider were greeted in the paddock by Millam, Embiricos and the horse's usually stoic trainer, Josh Gifford. He was in floods of tears.
"It was a miracle, it could not possibly happen," says Josh Gifford 26 years on. Standing in the yard of the Downs Stables in Findon, West Sussex, the scene of 3,000 people hailing Aldaniti's return after that unbelievable day, he looks up at a wrought iron gate with a coloured glass inset of the horse, and still seems to find the story incredible himself. "We only kept Aldaniti in training to keep Bob's pecker up really. It was touch and go every day he went out, we were scared to look around him or feel his legs in the evening. I was just waiting for the day I would have to call his owners and tell them he was a lost cause. It wasn't just his injuries, there was foot and mouth around in Sussex at that time too - twice we had him in a lorry ready to ship out of the county. But we got through it, Bob got through it and it was just as if it was meant to be. A fairy tale."
Gifford's career didn't begin and end with the Aldaniti story, though. For the best part of 20 years he was a jockey (winning 642 times), and his training career lasted for a full 30 years after that. He's won almost all the biggest races Britain has to offer in one way or another, although surprisingly he never won a Gold Cup, and never achieved a 'Top Trainer' season win (he was beaten on the last day of the season by his friend David Elsworth in 1988). Despite this, in total he has around 2,300 victories to his name as jockey and trainer and his name is synonymous with the sport. As he strolls around his old yard - now passed on to his son Nick - and shows Sussex Life the empire he built, the stable hands greet him with respectful 'Good morning, Mr Gifford's. It's clear he's still the ultimate boss around here, and the place is laced with his history and personality.
Having given us a tour of the house, Josh Gifford settles into his favourite armchair and sets about mentally revisiting the past. Huntingdon-born Gifford is 65 years of age now and has lived in Findon since he was an 18-year-old jockey who had grown too heavy to ride on the flat for Sam Armstrong in Newmarket, and so was packed off to join Captain Ryan Price in this very yard and ride 'over the sticks'.
He took over training at the stables in 1969, shortly after marrying show jumper Althea Roger-Smith, and eventually retired from sport in 2003 to allow Nick to further his training career. Josh now fills his days playing with his bubbly granddaughter Isobel - the first child of his daughter, three-day-event rider Kristina Cook, who also lives in Findon - as well as spending time with Althea, watching the racing and cricket on TV and occasionally going off to play golf with his friends. "I'm not very good," he says of his prowess with a set of clubs. "Too many bad habits."
While he has long since retreated from the glamorous but tough racing world he once dominated, there are reminders of it everywhere in his house. One hallway is jammed to the ceiling with photos and memorabilia. There are pictures of Josh with the Queen Mother, boxer Henry Cooper and various cricketing legends, shots of Aldaniti, Kybo, Deep Sensation, Commandante and all his other great horses. At one time, he had no fewer than 120 thoroughbreds at the stables. "You get very close to the horses," he says earnestly. "You're living with them - from 6 o clock in the morning 'til 10 o clock at night."
Horse racing can be a notoriously cruel game for all involved though, and Josh has had his fair share of tragedy. "It does hit very hard when you lose one," he says. "Commandante was the worst for me. He had won the Arkle for us. We entered him into the first race after they'd re-turfed at Lingfield and the track was not in a fit state. I considered pulling him out of the race but decided just to suggest they go easy. But he fell. He was alive for a couple of days after, but then we found out he'd fractured his pelvis and it was all over. They had to take him round the back, and you heard the gun go 'bang'. It was awful. I can still hear it now."
When asked to recall the biggest highlights of his career, Josh unsurprisingly says it has to be Aldaniti's dream win at the National. But he also gushes about Deep Sensation winning the Queen Mary Chase, the day he trained his 100th winner at Cheltenham - "There are only three others who've done that so I was very proud," he says - and other adventures off the race course.
"I remember going to the premier of the 'Champions' film," he recalls. "We were all lined up to meet the Queen Mum and the chap said 'Josh Gifford M'am' and she said 'Oh don't be silly, we're old friends!' That was a real thrill. I sat with her last time she had lunch on a racecourse - at Sandown. I remember talking to her about the bangers and mash they do at Ascot. She said 'I love bangers and mash!'. She was wonderful.
He also raves about his other sporting love - cricket - telling tales of the day he was Dennis Compton's guest at Lord's, the times that the entire Sussex cricket first XI would come up to Findon for drinks at the house - "All they wanted to talk about was racing and all I wanted to talk about was cricket!" Josh Gifford has undoubtedly lived a life less ordinary....